Lawrence has seen sharp increase of behavior issues at middle schools, with over 500 incidents in the first quarter

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Liberty Memorial Central Middle School is pictured in September 2018.

The Lawrence school district has seen a 60% increase in behavior issues at the middle school level compared to the beginning of last school year, with more than 500 incidents reported the first quarter. About 85% of the incidents occurred at two schools, Liberty Memorial Central Middle School and Billy Mills Middle School.

One parent at Central, who didn’t want to include her name for privacy reasons, said her son was beaten up twice within about the first month of school starting, and she has since pulled him out of the school and is trying to homeschool him.

“He doesn’t want to go back,” she said. “He already had high anxiety about going back (after the first incident).”

The first quarter of this school year, there were 532 behavior incidents at the district’s four middle schools compared to 330 incidents the first quarter of last school year, or a 61% increase, according to a recent district report. A similar report from last year indicates the district first saw a significant increase in the number of incidents at the middle school level in the second quarter of last school year, when the total number of incidents first jumped over 500.

District spokesperson Julie Boyle said that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all learning, including social and emotional learning, and that the district is not alone in seeing an increase in behavior issues in the wake of the pandemic. She said district efforts to address the issue include the recent expansion of the School Resource Officer program into all four middle schools, social and emotional learning initiatives, and mental health support.

“We know that COVID-19 and the learning interruptions it caused have negatively impacted students in all of our schools, and from all that we’ve read, students across the country,” Boyle said in an emailed response to questions.

photo by: USD 497

A district presentation slide compares the number of behavior incidents at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the first quarter of this school to the first quarter of last school year.

Types of behavior incidents

Of the approximately 530 incidents at the middle schools in the first quarter, about 300 occurred at Central and about 150 occurred at Billy Mills, or about 56% and 28% of the middle school incidents, respectively. Southwest and West middle schools both typically have more students enrolled than Billy Mills and Central, but had far fewer incidents, with 44 and 36 incidents, respectively.

The overall behavior incidents range from attendance issues to weapon possession. The school district provided a breakdown of the types of incidents at each school to the Journal-World, but excluded any categories of incidents that occurred fewer than 10 times, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and stating that quantities less than 10 may be personally identifiable. The elimination of those incidents from the data excluded about half of the 530 incidents. Of those that remained, the most common incidents were attendance issues, followed by “threats to injure person or property” and “violence against peers.”

photo by: USD 497

A report the district provided the Journal-World shows the number of behavior incidents at each of the district’s four middle schools during the first quarter of this school year and a list of the different behavior incidents that occurred.

More specifically, the district disclosed the category for 269 behavior incidents, with common categories including attendance issues (101), incidents of fighting or violence against peers (72), and incidents involving threats (55).

Specifically, the district disclosed the category for 128 behavior incidents at Central, which included 47 attendance issues, 35 incidents of violence against peers, 30 threats to a person or property, and 16 incidents of fighting. There were 127 disclosed incidents at Billy Mills, which included 54 attendance issues, 27 “multiple common teachable moments,” 25 threats to a person or property, and 21 incidents of violence against peers. The only disclosed data from Southwest and West middle schools was 14 “multiple common teachable moments” at Southwest. That category includes a list of behaviors — such as minor academic integrity violations, persistent argumentative behavior, and persistent disruptive behaviors — and when students have had multiple instances of these it gets coded as “multiple teachable moments,” according to information provided by Boyle.

photo by: USD 497

A breakdown the district provided the Journal-World shows about half of the approximately 530 behavior incidents that occurred at the four middle schools in the first quarter of this school year. The chart excludes any behavior types that had fewer than 10 instances.

The parent of the Central student said her son had reportedly gotten in verbal disputes with more than one student at school, and those situations seemed to have led to him getting in the two physical altercations. On the second occasion, she said that after being followed when walking home from school, her son was punched and kicked and left with multiple bruises. She said that’s when she decided not to send him back to Central. She expressed dissatisfaction with multiple aspects of her son’s particular experience, but more generally said she thought the school could use more counselors and the kids more tools to cope with what’s going on.

“I’m hoping that there will be changes,” she said.

The Journal-World reached out to the principal at Central on Thursday to talk generally about what the school has been seeing and how behavior incidents are being addressed, but did not immediately receive a response.

The numbers of incidents at the district’s 13 elementary schools and two high schools have seen less drastic changes. There were 280 incidents at the elementary level the first quarter of last school year compared to 264 incidents the first quarter of this school year. At the high school level, there were 198 incidents the first quarter of last school year and 222 incidents the first quarter of this school year.

Potential causes and district action

The district cited some potential reasons for why issues had increased significantly at the middle school level in particular. Though Boyle said “causes for disruptive behaviors are likely as individual as are students,” she added that adolescence presents particular challenges that were compounded by the pandemic.

“Adolescence is already associated with volatile emotions, boundary-testing, and risk-taking behaviors as children’s bodies develop and change,” Boyle said.

On top of that, Boyle said the pandemic meant students were absent from many supportive school structures and spent more time on screens, and that adverse affects of those disruptions have occurred not only in Lawrence but across the country.

“It has been widely reported that the pandemic led to increased anxiety, isolation, and depression among adults and children,” Boyle said. “We know that it interrupted students’ learning, including their social and emotional learning.”

Cynthia Johnson, the district’s executive director of inclusion, engagement, and belonging, noted data released by the National Center for Education Statistics, which indicates 84% of public schools agreed or strongly agreed that the pandemic negatively impacted the behavioral development of students at their school. Respondents attributed various behavior issues to the pandemic and its lingering effects, including increased incidents of classroom disruptions from student misconduct (56%), rowdiness outside of the classroom (49%), acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff (48%), and prohibited use of electronic devices (42%), according to the report.

The Journal-World asked the district whether the distribution of behavior events at the middle school level, i.e. more occurring at Central and Billy Mills, was a typical pattern for the district and whether there were any targeted or additional efforts at those schools. Boyle’s response was that the district has not had typical school years since the pandemic began, with schools being closed and students learning from home or in a hybrid model, so the student behavior data is not typical.

Regarding any targeted efforts, she said all of the district’s middle schools continue to focus on building strong relationships with students and families, culturally responsive teaching, engaging and rigorous instruction, social and emotional learning, restorative discipline practices, reinforcing positive behaviors and meeting the individual needs of students by following the district’s multi-tiered model of prevention, called Ci3T.

“We have great staff and great kids and are working with school families and our community partners toward continuous improvement,” Boyle said.

Other actions Boyle cited included the recent expansion of School Resource Officers to all four of the district’s middle schools; the long-running Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities (WRAP) program provided by therapists at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center; upcoming pilots of new social and emotional learning curriculum for all grades; the social, emotional and behavioral support provided by teachers and mental health staff via the Ci3T system; and ongoing and targeted professional development for teachers and building leaders, among other efforts.

The comparison of behavior incidents from the first quarter of this school year to the first quarter of last school year was included in a larger update regarding the district’s efforts to address academic, behavioral and other disparities across the district. The board receives updates on that data on a quarterly basis.


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